I grew up in a very diverse part of London; where I lived as a teenager, you could choose from a thousand different belief systems: Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Humanism, and a multitude of other isms. Within a mile of two of home, there were churches, mosques, temples, a gurdwara, and a myriad other places of worship.
Religion was everywhere as I grew up and today, a few decades on, it’s still everywhere and it’s growing. According to the statistics, we are becoming a more religious society here in the west. People don’t believe less, but they do believe more diversely.
One reason for the growth in religion and spirituality is that people are increasingly dissatisfied with shallow secular answers, the idea that all you need is money and pleasure, and that’s enough. As psychiatrist and author Viktor Frankl famously put it: “Ever more people today have the means to live, but no meaning to live for.”
How do we answer that meaning question? Winifred Gallagher is a journalist who has written for magazines including Rolling Stone, Harper’s and The Atlantic. In an interview about her book, Working on God, she describes this growing unease in our culture, this sense that there must be more to life than this:
The only way to describe the new phenomenon I am observing is to coin a new phrase: spiritual agnostics. We have regarded religion as belief in unbelievable things. Our trusted tools of intellect and learning have deconstructed religious belief. But we’re finding that we have inexplicable feelings. We wonder: Is this true? Is this all there is? I have tried to muffle this question in all the accustomed ways all my life: love, achievement, stuff, and therapy. I tried to muffle it by writing two books on science. By middle age, I have wearily recognized that religion is the only road I have not taken in pursuit of the answer … We’re haunted by faith.
If as Winifred discovered we are spiritual beings who need more than the endless treadmill of career to satisfy us, that raises a deeper question: which religion? Many people when they first begin to realise that there’s a spiritual side to life then quickly panic when they see the incredible range of religious options on offer. Paralysed by choice, the temptation is to reach for easy platitudes, such as “Well, I wonder if all religions teach basically the same thing?” That’s a warm, comfortable answer, not least because it allows us to approach spirituality in a slightly consumerist way, picking the beliefs, ideas, or practices that “work for us”: a little bit of yoga, a dash of meditation, the odd prayer, a couple of candles, and a lemon-scented journal.
But the uncomfortable, nagging fact remains that the only way to maintain this idea is by not actually going and looking. It’s a bit like when I frequently misplace my car keys: “Have you looked in the lounge where you normally lose them?” my wife will ask. “Yes, dear,” I reply, by which I mean I glanced briefly through the door but didn’t bother searching properly.
And it doesn’t take much looking or searching before you stumble across some fairly stark differences between the teachings of the world’s major religions, faiths, and spiritual traditions. Take just the two biggest religions, Christianity and Islam—often sloppily lumped together under the label “Abrahamic Faiths”. To give just one major example, if you look at the character of God in the Bible, you discover the Bible’s claims that God is relational, knowable and is not just loving, but is love. Turn to the Qur’an, and you discover it’s claims about God are almost entirely opposite.
“Ah, but that’s just theology,” you say. Alright, well what about some history. The central event of the Christian faith is the death and resurrection of Jesus—and secular historians will tell you that the former is one of the best attested facts of first-century history. If we can’t be sure that Jesus was crucified, under the Roman governor Pilate, sometime round about AD33, then we can’t be sure of anything in first-century history, as the evidence is so overwhelming. But along comes the Qur’an, some 600 years after these events, and claims that Jesus was not killed by crucifixion, but that this was just a wild claim made by the Jews. Those two historical claims—crucified and not-crucified—are impossible to reconcile, as execution by crucifixion is a rather binary affair: you can’t be partly crucified or only-mostly-dead.
And the more you study Christianity and Islam, or indeed the more you compare any of the world’s faith traditions, the more the contradictions mount up. Short of closing your eyes, covering your ears, and muttering “What car keys?”, you can’t escape the differences.
So how to navigate the maze of diversity and difference? Well, firstly, don’t be worried by it—it’s just one more sign that human beings are inherently religious, that we’re wired for faith, designed to be spiritual. That a desire for connection with God bubbles up everywhere in human culture, across time and space and history, is itself a massive clue. But that aside, how do we work through all the options and choices? Do we just pick randomly and hope for the best—or is there a better way?
I think there is. And so my first suggestion is this: try praying. Radical idea, right? But if there is a God behind this universe and there is religious truth to be discovered, maybe rather than take on our shoulders the full load of finding it, maybe we might ask for help? After all, Jesus famously said: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” So why not try praying, perhaps something like this: “God, I don’t know what to believe about you, but I want to know the truth and I want to encounter you. Would you please guide my steps as I seek?”
Secondly, take a long, hard, careful look at Jesus—perhaps by reading one of the four first-century eyewitness accounts of his life, death, and resurrection found in the gospels in the New Testament. Lots of religions claim to offer wisdom, advice, or high-minded thoughts about God and spirituality—but Christianity teaches that God stepped into space and history in the person of Jesus, in order to show us what he was like. If Jesus’s claims not to just have ideas about God, but to be God-with-us stand up, then that answers both the “Which religion?” question as well as the “What is God like?” question, in one go.
It’s easy to forget just how startling the impact of Jesus’s life has been, until you stop and actually think about it. The paradox is captured powerfully in this famous meditation written a century ago:
He was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He grew up in another village, where he worked in a carpenter’s shop until he was thirty. Then for three years he was an itinerant preacher. He never wrote a book, never held an office, never went to college, never visited a big city. He never travelled more than two hundred miles from the place where he was born. He did none of the things that usually accompany greatness. He had no credentials but himself. He was only thirty-three when the tide of public opinion turned against him. His friends ran away. One of them denied him. He was turned over to his enemies and went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed to a cross between two thieves. While dying, his executioners gambled for his clothing, the only property he had on earth. When he was dead, he was laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend … All the armies that have ever marched, all the navies that have ever sailed, all the parliaments that have ever sat, all the rulers that ever reigned put together, have not affected the life of humankind on earth, as powerfully as that one solitary life.
And, third, try reading the stories of those who have trodden the path of spiritual inquiry before you, especially those who have had the courage to follow it out of the religious tradition where they began. One of the most powerful books I have ever read in this vein is Nabeel Qureshi’s autobiography, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus. It tells the story of how, as a young and highly devout Muslim, he set out on a quest to know God better—and discovered that journey led him not deeper into Islam, but to an encounter with Jesus.
When it comes to the most important questions of life, ultimately what matters are not our feelings nor our hunches, but what is true. When we go to the doctor with a worrying pain we don’t want her to say: “What medicine do you feel would help?” but we want a diagnosis, and a correct prescription. When we board a plane, we don’t want the captain to come over the PA system and invite anyone who feels like it to come up to the cockpit and have a go at flying. What matters in these situations are not feelings or preferences, but truth. And it’s the same when it comes to questions of spirituality and religion—tempting as it is to settle for easy answers that make us feel good, I want to suggest that we need to find answers that measure up to reality, given that much is at stake.
 ‘Size and projected growth of major religious groups, 2015-2060’, Pew Research Center, 3 April 2017.